Interaction is better than plastic explosive

Aggiornato il giorno 11 Maggio 2020

One of the few women writing IF, Emily Short has a peculiarity: she always tries to improve the genre with her games. Who likes this sort of things must read her essays about game design and NPC, while her games, perhaps because (sometimes) "experimental", perhaps because ahead with times, can turn out little attractive for people accostumed to the adventures old style. But these games are an example, models to imitate for who wants to write IF today. And her ability shows also how it is possible, today, to bring home some money writing IF.

First question: how and when did you get involved with adventure games?
My parents got our first computer when I was a kid, in 1982. It was an Osborne 1, and most of the things it could do didn't interest me very much, though I did use its word-processing abilities to write papers for class. (I think I was the only third-grader who showed up with typed reports.) But it did play Deadline. I can't say I really understood what it was for or what was going on, but I observed my parents and tried to play it myself.

Some time later, we got our first Macintosh. I was more computer-savvy by that time and also generally more capable of following the storylines of Infocom games, and we had a number of them: the Zork trilogy, Enchanter, Infidel (though I don't recall that I every played it), another copy of Deadline. I tinkered with them all but never solved any until Wishbringer and Plundered Hearts, both of which have a special place in my affections for just that reason.

What's the difference between adventure games and IF?
Hmm. If you mean by that commercial or graphical adventure games, I don't play them; if you mean, should we call this stuff 'adventure games' or should we call it "IF", then I think IF is a broader and thus more accurate term for the range of things so produced.

In your games Npc are always important: do you think that a good game should have good NPCs?
Obviously, I'm in favor of having NPCs done well, if they're going to appear; but I've also enjoyed games that had minimal NPC interaction or none at all. I don't think there's a hard and fast rule about elements that you have to include in a good game. It just happens that a lot of the stories I'm interested in telling involve characters, and that means developing the techniques to portray them properly.

Tell us three rules to write a good Npc.
Give them attitude. The NPC who is a colorless question-answering-machine is boring, even if thoroughly designed. Conversely, even a technically unadvanced NPC can be fun if given
good lines when they do talk.

Make them active. NPCs who take the initiative to pursue goals, change the subject, etc., improve the illusion.

Suit the story. The NPC should be as complicated or simple as the rest of the game demands, and it would not work to put a Galatea-sized character in the context of Heroine's Mantle, say.

And three rules to write a good game.
Don't settle for the obvious (in terms of genre, puzzle-design, etc.). You need to have your own vision.

Be patient.


Among your games, which one was the most difficult to write and why?
They've all been difficult, but Pytho's Mask comes to mind as having been the most grueling, because I had this grand plan and about 8 days to do it in (and part of that time including overhauling my conversation system to do the menu stuff). And I was also going to class and so on. Eating and sleeping suffered a bit.

Most (or all) people say that today is impossible to make money with adventure games? Why today not and tweny years ago yes? It's because there are wonderful graphics and high technology today?
I suppose that's part of it. People debate this all the time, of course, and I'm not sure I have a better insight than anyone else; if anything, I'm probably less attuned to what goes into making commercial success than the average denizen of r.a.i-f, since many of them are programmers by trade and also tend to play modern commercial games. I don't, really; with the exception of the Myst series, I have not played a computer game that cost money in about eight years. I don't think I've *bought* a computer game since 1990.

The only additional thing I can offer on this topic, from my conversations with non-IF-playing friends, is that IF is difficult to get into. One has to learn to deal with the parser; it is not intuitive, and the experienced IF player has a list of verbs in his head that he knows are likely to be useful. A novice is likely to sit there typing in things that make no sense to the parser or that are too abstract to have been implemented (GO TO THE STORE instead of NORTH, perhaps, or CHECK INTO HOTEL instead of TALK TO CONCIERGE). There's a definite learning curve, and it involves discovering much more than you have to figure out to run a point-and-click game.

This is the kind of complaint that my father has about IF, and why he doesn't play it much (aside from the fact that he's quite busy.) He's not the kind of person who goes for first-person-shooters, and he *is* interested in the intersection of literature and interactive, computer-driven experiences, but the parser at the moment is too primitive for his tastes, and the range of possibilities he can get out of a game too limited. In that respect, there may come a time when IF is sufficiently developed as a literary experience to appeal to the book-reading market (as opposed to the computer-gaming market), but I think it's still somewhat distant.

Honestly, though, I don't care about this problem much. I'm interested in improving the quality of IF and expanding what it has to offer, and, sure, it would be convenient if that somehow made me rich (or, failing that, less poor). But obviously there's also something to be said for a hobby and the volunteer-oriented community that it generates. I'm more inclined to do what I can with the genre and leave the marketability question to take care of itself.

Which one is the best game of modern era and why?
In my opinion– and this is based on personal criteria not everyone will share– one of the most perfect works of modern IF is Spider and Web, for the fineness of its puzzles and pacing, the consistency of its atmosphere, and for the tension of the implied relationship with the NPC.

And which classic game is the best one and why?
I admired Spellbreaker very highly: it was mind-blowing to me how clever it was, and how elegant, ingenious and full of unfolding possibility. I felt when I was playing it that the author had realized the fantastic potential of IF to portray things that could only exist in the imagination. Like the zipper– well, I'll say no more.

On the other hand, I've never played a lot of the games that top other people's best-of lists, like Trinity or A Mind Forever Voyaging. And it's difficult to say, "this was the absolute best," because different works try to accomplish different things, and two games can be more or less spot-on in their respective categories without really overlapping at all.

Just as an exercise in capturing a genre, I thought Plundered Hearts was wonderful too: sure, it was silly, and no, the puzzles weren't hard, but it conveyed the sense of thinking within the logic of a certain projected universe– the universe of the bodice-ripper– and in that regard it was a beautiful success.

And the worst game ever?
I can think of a lot of games that just weren't trying to be anything, and thus contend for the bottom of the heap. I could probably say Breaking the Code without offending the author too much. If you mean games that were unintentionally terrible, then I can think of some of those too, but I'm disinclined to single out any one. I wrote something once in BASIC when I was about 13 or 14 that would be a lead contender in that category.

Most of games, today, have no much puzzles. It's good or not? Sometimes, maybe, people would like to have red, yellow and green buttons to press…, isnt?
I'm sure they would. That stuff is still being written, however, and it also dominates large-scale games. Heroine's Mantle, Muldoon, Ballerina — all of those are puzzlefests, and I can't really think of any puzzleless games that even approach them in scope.

Partly that's because, if you write a puzzle game, it takes longer to play because the player spends hours trying to get around the combination locks or whatever; to provide an equivalent amount of game-time-experience in a puzzleless scenario, I would have to write many times more text.

Nonetheless, I think examples like that underscore that the puzzle game is not dead. Nor do I champion their demise; I enjoy them. But there are also other directions I think the medium could expand, and I think those directions are more in line with my own personal talents.

What do you mean?
I mean that puzzleless IF, or at least IF arranged around stories and characters, is more interesting to me, and that I'm not very good at coming up with puzzles. I think I used up most of my thoughts in that direction with Metamorphoses. Even there, the puzzles themselves weren't individually that outstanding; what people liked was the interconnectedness and the range of options.

So what I would say is that I am better at coming up with a *system* — a simulationist system or a conversation system or whatever — than I am at coming up with individual puzzles. I like to get the player into a certain mindset where they understand what kinds of things they can do to interact with the world, and then explore the possibilities of that interaction form as completely as I'm able to. Just flat-out stumping the player until he thinks to explode a door with plastic explosive or whatever does not interest me as much.

What about your goals when you write IF? How can the medium expand? Puzzles give interactivity. Another way to offer interactivity is conversation. There are other ways?
I'm sure there are– though I'm not sure that conversation and puzzles are mutually exclusive. I could imagine puzzles that were based on figuring out the right thing to say. More relevant to me is the level at which you are interacting with the modelled world. With IF, there are a lot of options: you can be manipulating:

  • objects alone (Adventure and much subsequent oldskool IF)
  • details of conversation (Galatea)
  • conversations/events at a more macroscopic level (Varicella — you control what conversations will happen, but often the details thereof are prescripted)
  • major plot choices (Papillon's LOTECHComp entry One Week comes to mind; I'm not sure how much of this I've seen in a traditional IF mode, if only because it's hard to do.)
  • the text itself (The Space Under the Window)

And of course a game can incorporate aspects of both, like Leather Godesses of Phobos with the T-Remover, or Worlds Apart, which has objects and conversation.

I can also imagine, though I can't think of any examples so far, games in which the verbset has been radically changed and designed to cope with higher-order instructions, so that instead of doing >EAST, >TAKE THE BLUE BOX, you might type >CHECK INTO HOTEL, >PERSUADE PHILOMENA TO MARRY ME, etc. That sort of thing would of course require that the author not only change the player's expectations, but also that there be a fair amount of cueing in the game about what would work and what wouldn't. But text operates in such a way that we could approach interacting with the story at different– well, different resolutions, for lack of a better word.

What about you? Your job?
I'm a PhD student in Classics, if you want to call that a job.

When you dont write games, what do you do in your spare time?
Read, listen to music, cook, go to movies. Travel, when I get the chance. Write noninteractive fiction. Wander around and take photographs. I'm mediocre at most of those things: I love sushi, but making it come out so it doesn't look like it was rolled by a five-year-old is not as easy as you might think. But I do those things because I have fun with them, and I'm not too obsessed about how they come out.

I read a message posted by you sometimes ago on raif. You said that, sometimes ago, you thought to "sell your experience" with Inform? Did your really wanted people to pay to have suggestion on how write games and use Inform?
No. One of the things I like about the community in general is that it is mutually supportive; I've certainly learned a great deal by asking questions. I believe the context of that remark was that I felt someone was not working hard enough to figure out the answers himself. But for the most part, I am more than happy to contribute what I can to helping other people learn about Inform and game design.

Which one is the best author ever?
I don't know. I do have personal favorites, of course. Zarf and J. Robinson Wheeler come to mind, and I've also very much enjoyed the work of Kathleen Fischer and of Matt Fendahleen. And even if he never writes another game (one begins to fear he has outgrown us), I will always have a deep affection for Graham Nelson.

Do you think that today we have better games than ten-fifteen years ago?

The literature, greek and latin, are always present in your games. Apart that, which other books do you read to write your games?
Whatever research seems appropriate. I read a lot of Frances Yates for Metamorphoses (Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, particularly); I also sometimes read poetry, looking for something to capture the atmosphere of the game in my mind, even if that poetry does not wind up quoted in the game itself.

How many autobiographic elements are present in your games?

Seriously, I suppose I see what you're asking, but it's really an unanswerable question. Of course I draw on things from my own life, but it's not an uncomplicated process, and it's not as though I usually just insert experiences that I had or people I met into my games unchanged. Rather, things that happened to me serve as fodder that I then exaggerate, revise, or twist to make it more dramatic and suit it to the story at hand. There are no characters in my games that correspond to me in a direct sense, but there's also nothing that I invent that's completely out of the blue.

Which one is your best game?
I don't know. Galatea is probably the most striking, in the sense that it does things that were really new at the time, and possibly nothing else I write will ever seem quite as ground-breaking. Metamorphoses is I think less flawed technically; it's probably the most polished of my games, and the most satisfying to the traditionalist.

Which computer do you have and how many time do you use it per day?
A Macintosh G3 laptop, which is on continuously when I am awake.

We didn't talk about your latest game, City of Secrets. How the collaboration with the band born?
They emailed me and asked me if I'd be willing to do it, after one of them played Metamorphoses. I said no, initially — it looked like a big project, and I didn't think I would have time. They kind of cajoled and persuaded me. It has, in fact, turned out to be just as large as I originally thought it might. My initial fear was that it would have to be a .z8, and it in fact did grow that large — and then larger.

Part of that expansion has to do with the growing complexity of doing the story 'right,' part with the decision partway through to switch from the z-machine to glulx in order to open up new options.

On the other hand, writing CoS gave rise to a lot of programming developments that I use now for my own work, so that's an advantage right off the top. The story is fairly complicated and has different plot stages and a fairly large map (well, large for one of my games: I tend to go for compact geographies), so I found myself having to create a management system that would keep track of things like where the player was allowed to go during this particular phase of the game, what branches of the plot were accessible next, etc. That's been quite useful.

What else can you tell us about this game?
A lot of what there is to see is described at my website, here: There are some virtual feelies and so on there, and I submitted a preview to TrailerComp in August. The game itself is built around a basic plot that the band gave me, but I did a lot of further worldbuilding to create the level of detail it seemed to need. So in some ways it's not what I would have come up with on my own, but what's built over the basic structure is entirely mine: places, various characters, bits of history, etc.

At this point my end of the bargain is to a large extent fulfilled– I've done betatesting and fixed a bunch of bugs and so on– and we're waiting on some things from their end before we can finish it up.

It will be sold, so you will be, after many years (and some recent unsuccesful try), the first person to gain some money with IF and, most important, to let know IF to a big audience?
Well, it's a smallish independent band; we're not talking about expanding the audience for IF in really huge ways. Still, it would be nice to reach some people who haven't heard of this stuff before. From my point of view the important thing here is to make something that fits the band's expectations (that it be playable by new players who have never met IF before) but, at the same time, provide enough solid gameplay to entertain an experienced audience. That's not an easy balance, obviously.

As for being paid: yes, I have been paid to work on it, but the money/time ratio is low enough that, if I didn't have a strong investment in the work for its own sake, I would have given up by now. This is still not a market that is likely to pay anyone a living wage in the near future.

October 2001